I was thirteen in 1963. I was in gym class at Berkeley High School when I first heard that the president had been shot. I could not believe it. Young men were always lying to each other anyway. So I got dressed and left the locker room in a state of disbelief, almost numb.
Outside, the first adult I met was an African-American, a janitor at the high school.
"I heard the president was shot," I said. "But I thought it must be a joke."
"The president is dead," he replied. "You don't joke about a thing like that."
I was a Democrat who was justly proud of our youthful president. He was a great public speaker. I had read his book, Profiles in Courage, which he had written while recuperating from serious surgery. The book is a collection of thumbnail sketches about Senators in American history who had been presented with difficult choices. All these people had chosen the principled path, although some of them had been removed from office because of it.
Reading over the list of Senators today, I can't see much heroism there. For example, Kennedy and Sorensen (who aided in writing Profiles) praised Daniel Webster for engineering the Compromise of 1850 and holding the union together. In reality, the Compromise guaranteed the outbreak of Civil War, since the Fugitive Slave Law (part of the Compromise) was extremely unpopular in the North. Webster abandoned his moral principles--against the injustice of slavery--and handed a short-lived victory to Southern slaveholders.
As I left the gymnasium and headed for my next class, I noticed the flags flying at half mast, which confirmed for me the president was dead and not just wounded. I needed the confirmation because I could not believe the event. My entire world was shaken. I could not accept that people were assassinated in the modern industrial age.
I ran over to the office of the Berkeley Gazette, my hometown newspaper. There I purchased a copy of the paper fresh from the presses and emblazoned with a headline declaring in huge letters that the president was indeed dead.
I still remember where I was and what I was doing when Kennedy was assassinated because there is no way I can forget it. It seemed to me that history had come to a fork in the road and had taken the darker, more menacing road.